Over the past few seasons there has been an interest among San Francisco Performances (SFP) recitalists in exploring music written by composers towards the ends of their respective lives. András Schiff led the way with a three-concert series (co-hosted by SFP with the Great Performers Series of the San Francisco Symphony) in which he explored the last three piano sonatas composed by the four major “First Viennese School” composers: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. That project concluded in October of 2015; and it was followed this season by the four Late Style recitals that pianist Jonathan Biss gave with a prodigious diversity of colleagues. Last night SFP concluded its Virtuosi Series with a recital by British cellist Steven Isserlis accompanied by Canadian pianist Connie Shih; and the program could easily have been taken as an “appendix” to Biss’ project.
Isserlis organized his program around three cello sonatas, each by a composer from a different stylistic period but all composed late in life. The earliest of these was the Opus 65 sonata in G minor by Frédéric Chopin (who died in 1849), composed between 1845 and 1846. At the other end of the Romantic period, Isserlis played the Opus 117 (second) sonata, also in G minor, by Gabriel Fauré. Ironically, this counts as twentieth-century music. Fauré died at the age of 79 in 1924. Furthermore, he had a major spurt of productivity that began in 1915; and the Opus 117 sonata was composed in 1921. Thus, the “modern” sonata on the program, composed by Claude Debussy in D minor, actually predates the Fauré sonata. Late in his life Debussy began a project to compose six chamber music sonatas for different instruments. The cello sonata was the first of these, composed in 1915; and Debussy died in 1918, having completed only three of the sonatas.
The chamber music side of the Chopin catalog is remarkably sparse. Ironically, all of it involves the cello. In addition to the duo he composed jointly with Auguste Franchomme, there are two very early works, the Opus 3 “Introduction and Polonaise brillante” for cello and piano in C major, written between 1829 and 1830, and the 1830 piano trio in G minor (Opus 8). Then there is the Opus 65 sonata.
Multiple-movement compositions of an extended duration were never in Chopin’s comfort zone. However, illness had already taken over Chopin’s body by 1845; and that confrontation may have steeled his resolve to return to a traditional extended form and really make it work. The result is that there is a far steadier control of exposition, development, and recapitulation in the opening encounter that is encountered in any of his other sonata allegro movements. With the following Scherzo, he is on more familiar ground; and the Largo could almost be another nocturne that happens to be scored for cello and piano. This leaves the Finale movement, which neatly ties up the entire package with a brisk (and, at time, rollicking) Allegro.
As might be guessed, the piano part for this sonata kept Shih busy. There are any number of familiar tropes there, and Shih handled them all deftly without ever giving the impression that this was a piano composition with an obligato cello part. For his part, Isserlis always seemed to find just the right way to phrase Chopin’s cello line, never short-changing the expressiveness without ever getting bogged down in excess syrup. Playing as a duo, Isserlis and Shih made a clear case that this was the “late work” of a composer determined to summon all of his resources in the pursuit of a new path.
Fauré, on the other hand, was a much more prolific composer of chamber music; and that genre occupied him throughout his life. However, most of his music for cello and piano tended to be short salon-style pieces. Both of his cello sonatas were not written until that burst of activity that begin in 1915. Opus 117 is the more compact of the two; but he had no trouble maintaining his “old school” ways in his approach to thematic content and harmonization. One might almost say that there is a yin-yang relationship between Opus 117 and the Debussy sonata, the latter breaking with all the traditional structural principles of the former, almost as if Debussy were turning to a narrative line for his structure rather than any of the building blocks of the nineteenth century. For all of that opposition, however, Isserlis’ approach to both of these sonatas made a clear case that each composer had his own coherent strategies for exploring the expressive qualities of the solo instrument. Thus, having these two works share the same program amounted to an ingenious illustration of just how things were changing during the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Indeed, both of these sonatas could easily serve as “supporting context” for the major effort in French literature that was unfolding while these pieces were being written, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu). Thus, the idea of underscoring the complementary relationship between Debussy and Fauré with a nod to Proust was a stroke of genius. That nod came at the very end of the program with Thomas Adès’ Opus 26, his four-movement “Lieux retrouvés” (re-found places). Isserlis was actually the one to call out Proust in the spoken introduction that preceded his performances; but, in doing so, he hit on a fascinating parallel.
Those who know a bit of French probably recognize chercher as the verb for “to seek,” while trouver is the verb for “to find.” Isserlis’ introduction seemed to suggest that, just as Proust added the “re” prefix to chercher, Adès had done the same for trouver. Thus, Isserlis suggested that Adès was seeking a way to explore memory through music as Proust had done through writing. However, if Proust’s memories were triggered by a madeleine dipped in tea, each of the four movements of “Lieux retrouvés” involves a different sense of place as a memory source. The first deals with “views” of a variety of different bodies of water and the dynamics of their movements. The second approaches impressions of a mountain through the eyes of mountaineers. The third is a pastoral interlude that precedes the bustle of a large city, expressed as a “Cancan macabre.” This last movement imposes diabolical demands on the performers; but their command of the music was so secure that it was easy to enjoy of the humor of Adès madcap rhetoric.
For those who attend SFP recitals regularly, it is worth noting, as an aside, the sharp contrast between Isserlis’ approach to Adès and that of the Calder Quartet’s performance about two weeks earlier. Both performances provided excellent accounts of what I had previously called Adès “awesome wealth of intricate clockwork precision.” However, Calder never managed to grasp any of the narrative qualities in their performances of the two Adès selections. One might say that Isserlis’ understanding of Adès included a semantic dimension that had eluded the Calder readings. (I had encountered a similar problem when listening to the Calder performance of Béla Bartók in 2014.) Isserlis’ impressions on the listener run deep by virtue of his appreciating and manifesting qualities that go beyond the marks on the paper into a far broader domain of understanding, and those qualities are responsible for his performances being so compelling.
There were, fortunately, some lighter moments in the evening. The intermission was followed by Reynaldo Hahn’s arrangements and embellishments of two Irish airs. Similarly, Isserlis turned to Chopin’s arrangement of a Polish song for his encore. This was the last (seventeenth) in the Opus 74 collection, a “hymn from the tomb” about falling leaves, whose title in English would probably be “Faded and Vanished.” Chopin wrote this piece in 1836, but the opus number was only assigned posthumously. This selection, along with the Hahn arrangements, reminded us all of the beauty of a well-shaped melodic line and provided just the right balance against the more cerebral elements of last night’s program.